A Stumbling Block

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  (Matthew 18: 6)

Prior to this verse, Jesus has brought a little child into the midst of the adult disciples, who have had the audacity to ask him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He speaks gently of the humility and sweetness of a child, but then he presents this image, disturbing because of its stark contrast to what he has just said. It is better for a person to die a violent death than to give a little child a reason to stumble in his or her belief.

These words may refer to anyone who would lead a child down the wrong path. They seem, however, to be a particular indictment against all those adults who claim to be Christian but who live their lives in ways that make children, as they grow older, reject faith in God. Since these adults represent the institutionalized church to the little ones who watch them, these children grow to be teenagers who feel that if these people are the church, then the church isn’t worth much. And in rejecting the church, they reject God.

Wondering:  How can we be an example of how Christ would have us behave in the world?  As we wander through the Gospels with Christ, what is he teaching us by his own example?

Blind Man: “Let Me See Again”

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10: 46-52)

Jesus consistently gives attention to those others consider unimportant—those the world seems to have forgotten. This blind man is reduced to begging on the street for a living, and when he tries to command Jesus’ attention, others tell him to be quiet. The beggar is desperate, as are so many of the people Jesus helps, and when they try to shut him up, he cries out even more loudly, perhaps knowing this is his only chance at a normal life. When Jesus asks him what he wants, the blind man is bold in asking for what seems impossible.

This story gives us food for thought. Sometimes we need to be persistent in our cries for help, not so that we can be heard, but so that we don’t lose hope. This beggar refuses to give up his last shred of optimism, and sometimes we would do well to remember to hang on to our hope and faith with everything that is in us. This is also a lesson, however, for the crowd. In moments when we marginalize others because of our own overblown sense of importance, we need to remember that Jesus pays no attention at all to those who are telling the man to be quiet. God pays attention to those in need.

Wondering:  We might feel foolish when we ask God for what seems impossible. But how can the act of reaching out to God give us hope?  

What is Eternal Life?

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10: 17-22, NRSV)

The Gospels are full of stories of human people, full of very human emotions. In this well-known story, a very good man asks Jesus how to live forever. In this moment Jesus turns the Ten Commandments, which all involve doing no harm to others, on their head. He essentially asks the man to go beyond simply doing no harm.

What is often assumed by readers is that this man rejects God because he does not want to give up his material possessions. However, we know only that the man went away sad at the prospect of giving what he has to others. This may certainly be true, but we do not know what decision the man ultimately makes. We just know that the story ends with this man walking away sadly, as any of us probably would if we had to contemplate giving up all that we own. We also know that Jesus loves the man instead of scorning his seeming selfishness. The point, ultimately, is that we who have much have an obligation to act on behalf of those who do not, and sometimes we need to ask ourselves, “Just how much is enough?”  If we selfishly live in a world where we don’t allow ourselves to see others, we cannot possibly see God.

Wondering:  What is eternal life? How can we have the courage to trust that God will take care of the future if we share the fruits of our lives today with those in need?

Help My Unbelief

Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 21-24)

Anyone who has ever watched helplessly as a loved one suffers can understand the agony of this father. His child has been plagued by convulsions all of his life, and the father can do nothing. He asks the disciples to heal his son, and the disciples, too, are powerless. When the father sees the man he has heard cures all kinds of illnesses, he cries out to Jesus for help. Jesus tells him that if he will just believe, his son will be healed. The man declares his belief, but then, in the same breath, he begs Jesus to help him believe.

The wondrous thing here is that Jesus seems to understand the doubt of this tormented father, and he heals the man’s son despite the man’s wavering faith. Just so, God understands our doubts and our needs in our most agonizing moments.

Wondering:  When we want to believe but can’t help doubting, how can we reach God and allow God to reach us in the midst of our doubts?

Odd Miracle of the Blind Man

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”  (Mark 8: 22-26)

Although all miracle stories may seem a little strange, this story is one of the more odd ones in the Gospels. Strange enough is that Jesus would wipe spit on a man’s face, which in any other context would be the most insulting of gestures. Stranger still, in the context of Jesus’ other miracles, is that it does not work the first time. As anyone who is nearly blind can understand, this man can only see blurs of color before him, which is just a little more useful than seeing nothing.

Jesus does not tell the man or those who watch why he has to perform this odd action twice before it works. He doesn’t rebuke the man for a lack of faith, nor does he make excuses or explain himself at all. Perhaps beyond having an awareness that miracles can happen, we should also gain from this story the knowledge that miracles sometimes happen in very bizarre and unexplainable ways, ways that don’t always come in the form or at the moments we expect them. But they do happen, and we may not be able to understand them any more than we can fully understand the events in this story.

Wondering:  How can we recognize miracles in the odd and the unexplainable?

Lord, to Whom Can We Go?

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 66-69, NRSV)

Teaching in the synagogue, Jesus uses a metaphor, calling himself, and by extension God, the bread of life—the only kind of food that will ensure they will never be hungry. He tells them that nurturing themselves with spiritual food is a lot like eating to nurture our bodies. In the five chapters before this story, the writer tells us that the people who are listening have already seen him perform a number of miracles:  He turns water to wine, knows everything about a woman who is a stranger, heals a little boy, makes a paralyzed man walk, feeds 5000 people with fives loaves of bread and two fish, and even walks on water. And yet when he tries to explain how God nurtures the human spirit, all but twelve of those many people who were following him walk away.

I envy these people who actually saw Jesus perform miracles with their own eyes, and I wonder how it is that they could have turned away. How, too, could Jesus have let them go so easily? But it’s easier for us human beings to cling to what’s tangible. And each of us must decide for ourselves whether to eat that intangible bread of the Spirit—to go back to the spiritual table for more when we are in need.

Wondering:  How can we who have not seen Jesus in the flesh performing miracles nurture our faith that God can, indeed, nurture us when we need it?

Loaves and Fishes

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.(John 6: 11-13, NRSV))

This story is one of those that even people otherwise unfamiliar with Christianity know. A huge crowd has gathered to hear Jesus speak, and they are ravenously hungry. Christ takes a small amount of food from a little boy and uses it to feed thousands of people, and at the end of the meal, there is more food left over than Jesus had originally borrowed from the boy. It is a story that make nonbelievers incredulous and even some Christians skeptical. 

We all have to acknowledge, though, that God sometimes comes to us in ways that we haven’t even imagined. We face a decision or a crisis, and in our heads we go through all kinds of scenarios for ways that we hope things will work out. And then in desperation we cry out to God, and sometimes things work out in ways that we can’t even begin to explain or understand. One of the messages of this story is that Jesus may not always grant what we ask, but without fail, he always gives us what we need. In every story where people open themselves to the possibility of what God offers, they walk away satisfied.

Wondering:    How can we be sure that God will give us what we need when we’re hungry?

Walking on the Sea with Jesus

When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  (Mark 6: 48-50, NRSV)

The part that most people remember about this story is that Jesus walks on water, but the people who focus only on that miracle may miss the point entirely. It’s very interesting that Jesus originally “intended to pass them by.” Mark doesn’t say why that is Jesus’ intent, but what he does tell us is that the minute Jesus realizes that the disciples are frightened, he decides not to pass them by. Instead, he immediately stops and gets into the boat with them. He encourages them and tells them that they don’t need to be afraid. Mark describes them as being astonished. They aren’t astonished just because the wind has stopped. In fact, the wind stopping is probably no big surprise after having seen Jesus walk on water a few minutes before. Their shock may come from the fact that Jesus is willing to stop instead of going on by them and is willing to get into this boat with them.

In the same way, God is willing to get into the boat of our lives with us when we’re being tossed around in total chaos. Remember that God will never just pass us by when we’re in the middle of a storm. 

Wondering:  How can we find Jesus in the midst of storms, even when we may be so afraid that we forget to ask and can only cry out in fear?

Rest for a While

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  (Mark 6: 30-32, NRSV)

Jesus must be exhausted. His friend and cousin John has just been beheaded to preserve King Herod’s vanity, and Jesus and his friends mourn his loss.  Jesus has barely begun his ministry, and already people expect much of him.  He and his disciples have cast out demons and healed the sick, and Jesus has raised a child from the dead.  Everywhere he goes, someone wants something from him, and these are all things that need to be done—so much so that he and his disciples don’t even have time to sit down and share a meal together.  In these verses, Jesus basically says, “Stop!”  He pulls his disciples away from the demands of the crowd and tells them they need to take care of themselves.  He, too, must need some space to breathe.  After these verses, they come back to the crowd, renewed—determined to feed 5,000 hungry people.

These verses might get lost in the exciting stories of the miracles that surround them in Mark 5 and 6.  But there is a message for those of us who take a quiet moment to notice these three peaceful verses in the midst of the chaos.  We, too, must sometimes step away from the busy-ness of our lives to breathe and to restore our souls before we can have enough energy to meet the demands of the day.

Wandering:  How can we recognize when it’s important to walk away from the pain and suffering in the world and take some time to rest for a while?

Life Abundantly

I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10: 10b, NRSV)

The thesaurus groups synonyms for “life” in three categories: animation, biography, and existence. When Jesus talks about life, he is talking about the first category, which includes words such as “vigor,” ”vitality,” “energy,” “activity,” “spirit,” “effervescence,” and “verve.” All of these words imply enjoyment and fullness, not just existence. When Jesus says that he came that we might have life “abundantly,” he doesn’t mean just existing from day to day. He means being active and energetic, having effervescence for living in every moment and helping others have better lives in the present. Sometimes all of us get so preoccupied over our futures that we forget to be animated about the abundant life in the present. We want to have the best choices of colleges, jobs, or promotions, so we strive for unrealistic perfection in search of a future goal that is never guaranteed to us. Although he does occasionally tell us to look to the future, Jesus talks a lot more about life than he does about an afterlife. Perhaps that is a message about the importance of each life.

Wondering:  How can we live life abundantly, with energy and effervescence?  God wants that for us, for each and every human being.